It’s not easy studying an endangered species few people have ever heard of: it’s difficult to raise money, build awareness, or quite simply get people to care. But still, Jonathan Slaght – one of the world’s only experts on the massive, salmon-eating, frog-devouring Blakiston’s fish owl – insisted there are upsides.
“I had a conversation with somebody at a party and they said ‘oh what do you do?’ And I said ‘I work with Blakiston’s fish owl.’” When the party-goer admitted they’d never heard of the bird, they did what most of us do today: they Googled the owl on their phone.
“And what comes up is a picture of me holding an owl … It automatically makes me the guy,” said Slaght.
And the picture that comes up of Slaght is badass: backdropped by the Russian taiga, Slaght is heavily bearded with closely shorn hair and an expression so grim one is reminded of 19th-century family photos. Still, in his hand he protectively cradles – almost like one would a child – a big, burly owl.
Blakiston’s fish owl is the world’s largest, and in the Russian forests, where Slaght conducts his research, it cohabits with a lot of big names: the Ussuri brown bear, the Amur leopard, the Asiatic black bear and, of course, the grand-daddy of them all, the ever-popular Amur Tiger.
The owl and the owl man
When I meet Slaght for lunch, there’s snow on the ground and the trees are bare. We’re not in southeastern Russia – where Slaght chases down his big birds – but in Minneapolis, Minnesota at a bar-cum-bowling alley. The interview over pub food and beers is punctuated by the sounds of bowling balls hitting their mark.
Today, Slaght is a project manager with the Wildlife Conservation Society and a co-founder of the Blakiston’s Fish Owl Project along with Russian ornithologist, Sergei Surmach.But his first run-in with a Blakiston’s came in 2001 when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Russia.
At the time, all he knew about the species was from a tattered bird book more than 40 years old, including an “inaccurate, terrible” illustration of Blakiston’s fish owl.
“[The picture] looks like this trash can, grumpy looking. And the species description was one of the shortest in the entire book, you know: biology almost entirely unknown. Eats fish. Rare.”
Although an avid birder, Slaght never expected to actually see one of these things. He was told the owl was so rare that even seasoned ornithologists rarely saw it. Yet one day, hiking in the forest with a friend, he had an encounter that changed the course of his life.
“Something enormous flies away from us and lands close by and it’s just this big owl.”
Don’t show anyone this picture; this is a Blakiston’s fish owl. Jonathan Slaght
He assumed it was a Eurasian eagle owl – which can be found across the entirety of Eurasia, from the coast of Spain to that of Primorye – but took a few photos just in case.
“My brain wouldn’t believe it was this mythical thing.”
Although little known, even in Russia, Blakiston’s fish owl is actually the world’s biggest owl – at least on average, according to Slaght. There has been one record of a Eurasian eagle owl weighing 4.7 kilograms, which beats Blakiston’s best by 0.1 kilogram. Still, most Blakiston’s females (females are always bigger when it comes to raptors) outweigh their Eurasian eagle owl counterparts. They are so large – standing 0.75 metres high – that Slaght and other researchers say they are commonly mistaken for a person, another animal, or something out of a dream: when flying their wingspan almost reaches two metres.
A few weeks later, though, Slaght gets his pictures developed and takes them to a local ornithologist.
“He says: ‘don’t show anyone this picture; this is a Blakiston’s fish owl.’”
Slaght doesn’t follow the advice and shows the photos to another naturalist. This naturalist asks to borrow the pictures just for a few days.
“That guy got on a bus, went to Vladivostok and got together ornithologists and said ‘I have found a Blakiston’s fish owl,’” said Slaght, who noted that this was the first ever sighting in that specific Russian county and the southernmost record of the species in a hundred years.
“He took my discovery for his own.”
But in the years since, Slaght has got his revenge. He has become one of the foremost experts on the great owls and continues to find them where people thought them vanished – and this time he gets the credit for it.
But it’s required sacrifice: he spends several months every year away from his family, including his four-year-old son. His study site is so remote it takes 15-20 hours to reach from the Vladivostok airport. Once there, he lives in a van – literally down by the river – with Sergei Surmach and a small cadre of Russian men tracking birds by day and night.
He does it all for the love of an owl.
Fish and frog eater
Blakiston’s fish owl are not just distinguished by their size. They are also especially evolved for fish hunting. Blakiston’s have a less defined facial disk than most other owls, i.e. feather configuration on its face, which means that their hearing is probably not as sensitive as many owls.
“They don’t need to hear a mouse flitting through the understory,” explained Slaght. Instead, the owls perch on a rock in the middle of the river waiting for a fish or walk along the bank looking for a good place to kill some fish for dinner, even during the interminable Russian winter. They are stupendous hunters, able to bring in salmon or trout that are sometimes two-to-three times as heavy as they are.
Owls are famous for their stealthy, near-silent flight. But Blakiston’s, lacking the special feathers that muffle flight, are loud. Again, this is probably due to the fact that they are catching fish, which don’t hear nearly so well as rodents or rabbits. The big birds also spends a lot of time on the ground and never go far from the rivers where they feed, not something you’d expect with most owls. Yet they have largely avoided sightings – even by locals – by only coming out at night and occurring only near water and at low densities.
While we talked, Slaght showed me a picture of a Blakiston’s fish owl pellet on his computer: a tiny pile of slight, white bones. Blakiston’s, like so many raptors, regurgitate the indigestible bits of their food into ‘pellets.’ But while most owl pellets are densely packed with fur, Blakiston’s are more like tiny ossuaries for its furless victims: fish and frogs.
Although, the owl largely depends on fish, it also takes advantage of a superabundant food source in the spring: frogs. Slaght believes that they time their breeding to coincide with frog season, so that when there is a new, very hungry mouth to feed in the spring they can just scoop up frogs en masse.
The God of Hokkaido
While Slaght studies his birds in Russia, they are also found in a remote region of China, possibly North Korea, and, most famously, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The bird on Hokkaido is a distinct subspecies separated by hundreds of thousands of years from its mainland relative.
Japanese researcher, Takeshi Takenaka, is one of the owl’s champions here. And, like Slaght, it was an encounter with a bird that led him to his current path.
In the 1990s, Takenaka was studying water quality in Hokkaido when “suddenly one huge bird flew over me and stopped on the branch in front of me. I was stunned. He gazed me with his yellow eye a moment, then flew away into the forest.”
Takenaka said in that moment he “met god” – and he means that quite literally: the Blakiston’s fish owl is considered a divine being by the island’s indigenous Ainu people.
When Takenaka saw his first Blakiston’s in the flesh, it was nearing extinction in Japan. At the time, conservationists believed only around 40 pairs of the subspecies survived – after facing decades of logging, agricultural development, dam-building and unsustainable salmon harvests across the island – and around 10% of these showed signs of inbreeding.
Today, however, the birds are beginning to recover. Nest boxes, supplemental feeding, better protections and less development have brought the latest population count to 54 pairs. The birds, however, are still threatened by car collisions, electrocutions on telephone wires and over-zealous tourism, according to Takenaka.
“The Japanese government put their backs into fish owl conservation,” said Slaght of the owl’s burgeoning recovery on Hokkaido. He notes that what happened to fish owls in Hokkaido in the late 20th Century – a flood of development projects – is a cautionary tale for what’s occurring in the southern Russian Far East today.
The IUCN Red List currently classifies Blakiston’s fish owl as endangered, with a global population of around 1,500-3,700 birds. While the species inhabits a wide range, it lives at very low densities and requires very specific conditions in its habitat.
The best way to safeguard fish owls would be to set up new parks, according to Slaght’s Russian collaborator Surmach. But he added that new reserves are “unlikely” at this time given “the creation of new reserves is a long and political process” and the region already has a number of reserves for tigers and leopards.
Unprotected forest in the region is now largely under the management of logging companies, which have been building roads at a furious pace. Over the last 30 years, the kilometres of roads in Terney County, where Slaght and Surmach work, has jumped from 228 to 6,278 kilometres, an increase of more than 2,700%. But so many news roads means more people exploiting the forest.
“All the threats [to fish owls] can be boiled down to human access,” said Slaght, who noted that while logging companies in the region usually respect Russian regulations, such as no cutting trees along rivers, locals may not. Moreover, an increase of people has meant more fish owls getting run down by cars, more owls killed by wary hunters and, most worryingly, massive overfishing for caviar.
“Nets are put across the entire waterway and every single thing that is trying to get upstream to spawn is caught,” Slaght explained. “Male [fish] are just thrown on the bank and discarded … females are opened up, caviar is removed, females are thrown on the bank.”
Not only are such practices decimating fish in the region – which the owls depend on – but the owls are also fatally attracted to the fish caught in the net. If an owl gets entangled in the net, it will very likely drown.
Owls aren’t the only victims of this sudden access to the once-impenetrable forests. Poachers often spotlight the new logging roads looking for deer, boar and, of course, tigers. Local people – many of whom have hunted, gathered and fished in these forests for generations – have seen prey densities decline and have had to deal with unruly poachers breaking into their cabins and wildfires due to poorly managed campfires.
“All of these problems can be solved in my opinion by reducing human access to these roads … the logging companies built them, the logging companies can do what they want,” said Slaght. “They can close them, they can leave them open.”
With this mind, Slaght and others met with the biggest logging company in the region, TerneyLes, last May. He said the company was “way more responsive than we were expecting” and has since closed one major road, though many others remain open.
Slaght hopes to convince TerneyLes to close more roads this year, which are shut down by removing access bridges or bulldozing trenches and piles of dirt to block off a road. He also hopes to get local hunters on his side, arguing that while road closures may cause them some inconvenience it will, in the end, protect the forests they have depended on for generations from runaway exploitation.
The anonymous owl
The idea to start closing logging roads was sold to TerneyLes because of the threat to Amur tigers, and not Blakiston’s fish owl or other species in the region. Yet, Slaght said that tiger conservation – which dominates wildlife protection here – really does help protect everything else. Tigers are a “fantastic flagship species” because the single range of a male Amur tiger can extend a thousand kilometers.
“If people are going to want to close off roads because of tigers [that’s] great, that solves myriad of other conservation problems,” he said.
But the Blakiston’s fish owl still faces one distinct threat that tigers in the region don’t: its anonymity.
“Without question, it’s hard,” said Slaght. “I struggle to raise fish owl money … There’s a lot of people working on tigers across the region with entire funding streams devoted to them. Whereas with fish owls, it’s just me and this dude,” referring to Sergei Surmach.
Surmach, who was born in the region, said that the problem isn’t just lack of recognition abroad. But that few Russians – even locals – know of this species.
“At dusk it is sometimes mistaken for a lynx – because of its size and prominent ear tufts – or something else unknown and mysterious,” he said, noting that such encounters sometimes end with a hunter shooting the owl before they even know what they’re aiming at.
This influx of hunters – and especially commercial poachers – also makes working in the region risky at times.
“You see a person and you hide,” said Slaght. “If I’m walking along the road at night doing fish owl surveys and I see lights coming, if I can get off the road in time, I get off the road. You don’t know who they are, they are probably armed … best to avoid them.”
Slaght then paraphrases the great Russian explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev, who explored these very forests more than a hundred years ago: “The most dangerous animal in the forest is man.”
And some things never change.
“Unfortunately, rifles still outnumber zoom lenses in the depths of Russian forests,” said Surmach
According to Slaght, increasing the presence of zoom lenses may be one way of ultimately safeguarding the fish owl. To date, the region has little tourism infrastructure, so little in fact, that when a single foreign tourist showed up at Land of the Leopard National Park last year, it made front-page news. But Primorye, or formally Primorsky Krai, has many wildlife attractions, not least of which is the fact that this is one of the few regions in the world where one can see boreal, subtropical and temperate species all in the same place.
“For birders it’s fantastic. It’s a paradise. You can see an ungodly number of species,” said Slaght. Yet he cautioned that, at least for now, only the adventurous should consider visiting. Also, tourists shouldn’t expect to see a tiger or even a fish owl, though you might be able to hear the latter and see pug marks of the former if you’re lucky.
Still, a rise in wildlife tourism could bring a new industry to a part of the world that relies almost entirely on logging for economic survival, especially if tourists stayed at local guest houses and hired local guides – something not yet widely available.
“That would be an investment in protecting forests,” he noted wistfully.
Slaght is a realist; he doesn’t expect that people will fly thousands of miles for a chance to see the world’s biggest owl. But they might for the opportunity to hang out in a forest where tigers, bears, wolves and leopards still roam. They might for the chance to see dozens of rare bird species. They might for the opportunity to fish for cherry salmon on a clear Russian river – while listening for the telltale hoot of the Blakiston’s.
When I leave the bowling alley that afternoon, the sky is clouded over in what seems perpetual winter and I can’t help thinking of owls. Of fish owls as big as trash cans, scooping up trout from a rushing river. I can’t help thinking of all the natural wonders on our little planet, and how many of them we know so little about. And how many of them we’re losing.
The Blakiston’s is lucky, though: it has champions in its corner. It has Surmach, Takenaka and Slaght. And in the end that may make all the difference for the world’s biggest owl.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 03 Mar 2016.